GAA Handball reaches unprecedented heights in growth and profile
Handball in Ireland continued to thrive in 2011 both on and off the court with players from all age brackets conquering on the world stage, from the junior cohorts right up to the highest echelons.
It all began when the Irish junior team returned home to Dublin airport from San Diego, on January 3rd after they completed a clean sweep at the 55th USHA Junior Nationals. Tyrone’s Caolan Daly, Cork’s Killian Carroll and Monaghan’s Darren Doherty secured all the key battles in the boy’s section while Cork’s Catriona Casey and Down’s Lorrain Havern dominated in the ladies band.
The blue ribband event in the Irish calendar, the senior 40×20 championship got underway in February and from the outset, few could see past one winner in the end. Current world senior champion, Cavan’s Paul Brady was chasing a record breaking seventh straight win. That scenario was put in serious doubt when Armagh’s Charlie Shanks rose to the pinnacle in Ulster, producing the best handball from any of the provincial winners which included Dublin’s Eoin Kennedy in Leinster, Mayo’s Dessie Keegan in Connaught and Diarmaid Nash (Clare) in Munster.
Brady withdrew from the Ulster final in March but regained entry through the qualifier system and ended up ensuring his showdown with Shanks as the two progressed to the 40×20 final for the second year in succession in April. At Abbeylara, the Mullahoran man displayed his breathtaking power from both sides of the body and his ruthless attacking onslaught proved too much for Shanks to contend with as Brady secured title number eight 21-17, 21-3. “I’ve been training for this day for 12 or 13 years,” said Brady after his win. “It was a long-term goal and words really can’t describe what it means to me.” Brady then added a seventh doubles title to his collection alongside Michael Finnegan. Kerry’s Maria Daly beat her doubles partner, Ashley Prendiville in the ladies open decider.
A huge turnout attended GAA Handball Congress in Kells, which witnessed local clubman, Walter O’Connor, take on the role of GAA Handball Ireland President. The former senior champion from Meath has shown considerable drive and passion in his role to ensure the sport flourishes during his tenure. At Congress, Uachtaraín CLG, Christy Cooney congratulated GAA Handball on another brilliant year with a massive rise in profile attributed to The GAA Handball Show on TG4 and also highlighted the hugely significant rise in membership, new clubs being formed and the brilliant news of over 60 new one wall facilities installed around the country. He also emphasised the undoubted support of the GAA for handball going forward.
Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy hit the headlines in May and remained in the spotlight as the second half of the year unfolded. After a glittering junior career, the Mullingar man delivered when he took his first senior title at the Irish 40×20 Nationals in Wexford before going on to add the senior hardball singles in June.
July witnessed wins for Herman Mendez (Puerto Rico) and Karen McConney (USA) at the Irish One Wall Nationals in Castlebar and champion, Mendez was highly impressed when he said, “handball looks like it may be heading to the Olympics and there is no doubt that the work GAA Handball is doing with it’s youth will reap major rewards in the future.”
Clare’s Pat Kirby returned home from Arizona during the summer to celebrate the centenary year of his beloved club, Tuamgraney, who erected a striking monument to honour the living legend while Ballaghadereen continued to dominate in the open club series, winning their 14th Softball club title in July.
Wexford’s Barry Goff and Colin Keeling collected the first ever 60×30 Nationals titles in July and then went one step further when they were crowned the M Donnelly GAA Handball doubles champions in September after overcoming Mayo’s Dessie Keegan and Joe McCann.
In the singles showdown, 31 year old Kennedy was chasing an eighth consecutive win but 22 year old McCarthy really came of age and produced scintillating handball to grab a third senior title across three different codes inside six months.
Just four weeks later, in front of thousands of webcam viewers, he stunned the American professionals, as did Armagh’s Charlie Shanks (now based in New York) when they knocked out the world’s elite 40×20 players one by one until they were the last two men standing. After a gripping encounter, McCarthy’s year went from great to astonishing as he added the US Open of Handball to his list of accolades and became the 3rd Irish player in history to win a US Open title, alongside Brady and Cork’s Tony Healy.
In November, the Irish Junior Nationals attracted a record breaking 352 youth players and the winners in the key age groups formed the official Irish team, namely Clare’s Colin Corbett and Colin Crehan, Cork’s Killian Carroll and Catriona Casey, Galway’s Ciana Ní Churraoin and Roscommon’s Lauren O’Riordain. The squad, to be managed by Tom Sheridan and Paula Clarke, travel to Tucson, Arizona this weekend for the 56th USHA Junior Nationals.
The year closed out for GAA handball with another booming All-Star Awards at Croke Park where McCarthy aptly took the male player of the year award while Kerry’s Daly won the ladies. Three times world ladies champion Fiona Shannon was honoured with the international player for her exploits at the 61st USHA Nationals in Minnesota in June.
In addition to the playing accolades, GAA Handball Ireland has now witnessed a 30% rise in membership, the formation of 62 new clubs and over 120 new One Wall Schools Handball facilities launched. The delivery of a new Strategic Vision in conjunction with the GAA as well as being the leading player in the creation of a new International Handball Federation that will see 33 countries combine to move the sport towards securing Olympic status, highlights the fantastic era that now lies ahead for this GAA sport.
2012 looks set to take this once regarded minority sport to even greater heights. Major international coverage will bring world’s best players at the World Handball Championships in the City West Arena in Dublin next October to the masses. Over 2,000 players from 33 countries will do battle and for the Irish players such as Cavan’s Brady, Armagh’s Shanks, Westmeath’s McCarthy, Kerry’s Daly and Antrim’s Shannon and Reilly are among the favourites to lift the world crowns in the midst of 5,000 spectators at the purpose built handball amphitheatre.
Handball and sport enthusiasts can see all the highlights of 2011 on the new GAA Handball Show series, with eight episodes scheduled on TG4 every Monday night on January from 8.30pm to 9.30pm. The series starts on Monday 2nd January 2012 from 8.30pm.